One person's exotica is another's home cooking. Such is the lesson of Lily Levin, who brings the mysterious East to the stove of the West with no folderol of woks and sharks' fins and steamers. She even turns a piece of leftover roast beef into Chinese food.
"Any Australian, American or European kitchen is equipped to cook Chinese," she says, and she should know. Having grown up in Peking in a family that traveled a great deal, and immigrated to Taiwan, she married an American foreign service officer, Burton Levin, who is now consul-general of the United States in Hong Kong.
Not only does she entertain 800 to 1,000 people a month in Hong Kong, she gives cooking demonstrations wherever she travels -- including her home base of Washington on occasion -- and has published her own cookbook, "Lily's Way: Scrutable Chinese Cooking" (Lily's Way, Inc., $9.95, available at Bloomingdale's and B. Dalton). "You don't need a wok, you don't need to go to Chinatown. With the electric stove you are better off with a frying pan than a wok," insists Levin.
American refrigerators are already equipped with the ingredients to cook Chinese food, even without a visit to a specialty shop, she says. In fact, she goes so far as to suggest even the American freezer can be pressed into service to yield up some frozen vegetables, and the microwave can add its talents to Chinese preparation. "It's all a matter of personal preference and common sense," she says.
The four vital seasonings for Chinese cooking are what she calls "poss," which are nothing more than pepper, oil, sugar and salt. And if you want to "branch out a bit" you can "stretch your vocabulary" with "ss" (soy sauce and sesame oil). As for flavoring agents, the three basics are garlic, scallions and ginger -- all readily available, although onions can be substituted for scallions, ginger powder for fresh ginger if necessary. In Denmark she was once reduced to making-do with candied ginger, soaking it in cold water until the sugar dissolved.
"There shouldn't be such a separation between European and Chinese cooking," concludes Levin. Baking is another matter -- you have to be precise. Her book, she says, is to be read as a preview to other recipe books, to impart the understanding and confidence to remove the mystique from all Chinese cooking. Thus its photographs depict everyday American utensils -- enameled pots and silver platters -- in the foreground, the more exotic steamers and lacqueurware in the background. And it "seeks to spread the word on Lily's way a little further beyond the suburbs of Washington, D.C."
Most cookbooks, Levin declares, are "too tedious -- half a spoon of this, half a cup of stock. If a person doesn't have stock, what does he do?" What he does if he has read Levin's book is leave it out.
Furthermore, most Chinese cookbooks have a restaurant approach: "They like to give the big dishes, the name dishes." And they use unnecessary ingredients. "One cookbook says to sprinkle everything with sesame oil when you serve. Sesame oil is almost like perfume; when you want to make a statement you use it."
Then there are the techniques: Easy, according to Levin. Scrutable. "Stir-fry action is like tossing a salad, the same action. And as you wouldn't want to toss your salad too much, you shouldn't toss your stir-fry too much." As Levin talks with her hands, tossing and stirring her words with gestures, she makes it look easy.
The photographs are not of lotus roots and mustard greens, but of familiar carrots, celery, brussels sprouts -- used as individual leaves -- and tomatoes. What is particularly remarkable about the book is, given its price, the number and quality of color photographs; in fact, as she published the book herself, she hired one of the photographers of the much-celebrated Hong Kong & China Gas Chinese Cookbook, Benno Gross, who according to Levin specializes in food and diamonds.
In Hong Kong Levin sprinkles her Chinese food with Western touches and vice versa. She might serve a Chinese luncheon with Western serving pieces, and follow with a Western dessert of cored apple soaked in liqueur and topped with sherbet, spun sugar and colored egg white bits. Her Chinese chicken soup might have a Western touch of cucumber blended to a puree that lightens the broth -- the Chinese never use a blender. Then she might garnish with something so Western as sour cream and dill. On the other hand, she might dress up a Western dish -- leftover roast beef, sliced thin -- with Chinese accents of soy sauce, sesame oil and scallions. "Last night it is typical American roast beef, today it is a Chinese dish," she explains. And then she might stuff it in pita bread.
This is not a book to enlighten accomplished cooks -- they might scoff at her shortcut Peking duck; it is for beginners and for cooks who want new ideas to spark their old ways and ingredients. It does, however, include a section on soybeans that is more thorough than even most sophisticated Chinese cookbooks. It describes bean curd and its varied uses, and offers a recipe for soy milk as well as some for bean curd dishes. Most important, it shows in photographs two dozen different forms of soy, from the sprouts to the sauce to the oil, on to soy bean skin and pressed bean curd.
In her book and in her demonstrations, Levin expects her techniques to add up to infinite and personalized dishes. She calls it "method cooking" rather than a recipe approach. "Today I teach you an idea, you have a hundred dishes," she predicts.
Not only is hers a book to sit down and read through from cover to cover, it has charts such as one that suggests which vegetables go with which meats and seafoods. Her book, slim as it is (115 pages) and with mostly text and few parts recognizable as recipes, gives combinations and proportions and rough ideas of amounts and methods -- not what Americans are used to, she admits. But if it is used as it is meant to be, says Levin, "I have around 200 recipes in it."
And most comfortingly, she says, "Cooking Chinese can never be a total flop. So today it didn't taste the way you want it to taste, it still can be a good dish."
Here are a few of Lily Levin's dishes, just in time for Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, which starts today: TOMATO-BASED SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE WITH FISH OR SHRIMP (2 generous servings) 1 pound fish fillets, cut into bite-size pieces, or 1 pound shrimp, cleaned and deveined Salt and pepper to taste 1 tablespoon white wine 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup cooking oil FOR THE SAUCE: 1 clove garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped 2 tablespoons oil 1 tablespoon white wine 2 tablespoons sugar 3 tablespoons vinegar 4 tablespoons ketchup 5 tablespoons water 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Season the fish or shrimp with salt and pepper to taste and mix well with the wine, cornstarch and flour. Deep-fry the fish or shrimp in the cooking oil for 2 to 3 minutes until it is golden brown, then scoop it onto a plate.
To make the sauce: saute' the garlic and ginger in oil in a frying pan or pot. Mix the wine, sugar, vinegar, ketchup, water and cornstarch and pour into the frying pan or pot. Stir for 15 to 20 seconds over medium heat.
Add the deep fried fish or shrimp to the sauce, mix and stir for 10 seconds, remove from the heat and serve. STIR-FRIED LAMB WITH SCALLIONS (2 generous servings)
This is a very traditional Peking dish. The trickiest part of all of this is to avoid overcooking the scallions. They need only a few seconds of cooking and if they are overcooked, they will ruin the dish completely. 3/4 pound lamb, shredded 2 teaspoons soy sauce 4 tablespoons oil 6 scallions, shredded or cut into 1-inch slices
Mix lamb with soy sauce and stir-fry in hot oil for 30 seconds. Add scallions, quickly stir-fry with the lamb (about 3 seconds), scoop out and serve. FRIED RICE (4 servings)
Cooking fried rice is a very simple matter. With the exception of fish and sweet and sour dishes you can use any leftover stir-fried dish to mix with cold cooked rice to make a simple yet tasty meal that goes well with a cup of coffee or tea. 2 scallions, finely chopped 2 teaspoons oil 2 cups cooked cold rice 2 eggs, blended
In a wok or skillet, saute' scallions in hot oil several seconds. Combine the rice with the eggs and mix in with the scallions until rice is heated through. (Alternatively, combine rice with a leftover stir-fry dish.)
Hint: Don't throw the cold rice into the just-completed stir fried dish. It takes time to get cold rice hot, and by then your stir-fried meat and vegetables will be overcooked and not so tasty.
Don't use just-cooked hot rice to make fried rice because it tends to become sticky. Room-temperature or refrigerated rice is fine. BON BON CHICKEN (4 servings) 2 whole chicken breasts Salt and pepper, to taste 1 scallion 1/4-inch slice fresh ginger 2 to 3 small cucumbers 2 tablespoons sesame paste (or substitute 2 teaspoons each creamy peanut butter and sesame oil) 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce 1 teaspoon chili oil 1 clove garlic, crushed Pinch sugar
Boil 2 chicken breasts for about 25 minutes in water to which salt, pepper, scallion and ginger have been added. Take out the chicken breasts, allow them to cool, and shred them.
Shred 2 to 3 small cucumbers (if the skin is not tough, leave it on, it has a wonderful flavor and color). Arrange the shredded cucumber around the shredded chicken on a plate.
Mix sesame paste, soy sauce, chili oil, garlic, salt and pepper to taste and sugar. Keep the chicken and cucumber and the sauce in the refrigerator. When you are ready to serve, just pour the sauce over the chicken and cucumber. %%THE LION'S HEAD (4 servings) 2 pounds ground pork 4 to 5 tablespoons soy sauce 1-inch piece fresh ginger, minced 2 scallions, finely chopped 5 to 6 water chestnuts, finely chopped 1 teaspoon white wine 2 teaspoons cornstarch or more as needed 1 teaspoon sugar 2 eggs 5 to 6 teaspoons oil 1 cup chicken broth or water 3 teaspoons dry sherry 1/2 chinese cabbage, washed and quartered
To make 4 lion's heads, combine ground pork with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, water chestnuts, wine, cornstarch, sugar and eggs. Mix the ingredients together very well -- the more you mix, the softer the meatballs will be. Make 4 equal sized meatballs -- if you find the meat is too loose to form into balls, add more cornstarch.
Heat oil in a pan and brown the meatballs on all sides. When browned, pour in a mixture of chicken broth or water and dry sherry. Bring the mixture to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. While simmering, turn the meat once.
Take the meat balls out of the simmering sauce, lay the chinese cabbage at the bottom of the pot, salt and pepper a little, then put back the meat balls. Bring the sauce to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes.